‘Left Behind’ teaser trailer doesn’t look good, but it looks better than the book

The Left Behind reboot arrives in theaters in a little more than four months. The first real teaser/trailer for the movie only arrived this week:

The first words we hear are from Mrs. McFly as Irene Steele, talking to her daughter: “I have been praying for you to come home and I believe that that is why God brought you here.”

Right off the bat, then, we learn several things about this movie.

First, encouragingly, it suggests the movie won’t be afraid to deviate from the plot of the book when that plot simply doesn’t make sense. Chloe Steele’s mysterious journey from Stanford to the Chicago suburbs goes unexplained in the book. All flights are grounded, most highways are impassable, and Buck Williams’ much shorter trip to New York — recounted in pointless detail over the following chapters — takes twice as long and is only possible because Buck taps into an unlimited expense account and other resources Chloe couldn’t have had. But it seems that the movie will fudge all of that, perhaps by having Chloe already in Chicago before the Rapture. That’s a smart choice — although I’m not sure anyone attempting to adapt this contradictory and often-impossible story really has a choice but to rework the plot at several points.

It also seems that Irene is going to have a speaking part in this story in something other than pre-Rapture flashbacks, suggesting we’ll be getting a linear chronology that starts well before the book’s mid-flight opening. It looks like it’ll be the standard disaster-movie formula, then, where the story idles in neutral for the first act, introducing characters and relationships before finally kicking into gear when the earthquake/alien invasion/zombie apocalypse/volcano/Rapture/Sharknado hits. In the book, Jerry Jenkins nods in the direction of a more interesting approach — starting his story in mid-air, but then he quickly retreats from that into dozens of pages of expository flashbacks. (For all the imitations and rip-offs we’ve seen of Lost, I wish we’d see more stories follow the example of that show’s first episode. A man opens his eyes. We don’t know where he is or who he is. Our first idea of Jack is what we see him do.)

I’m also guessing that Irene’s role will be that of Mrs. Exposition — explaining what the Rapture is for anyone in the audience who is not already steeped in the folklore of this peculiar strain of End Times mania.

The main takeaway from this trailer, though, is that the filmmakers aren’t expecting much of an audience apart from those already well-acquainted, or exclusively acquainted, with its premillennial dispensationalist Rapture ideology. That’s the main reason for all this talk of praying and God in those first lines and throughout the rest of the trailer. For all their hopes that casting Nic Cage and a bunch of other semi-famous “real” movie stars might draw a larger audience, the producers don’t seem to be trying to reach that larger audience here. They probably don’t think they have to — the Left Behind series has sold more than 65 million books, if they can sell that many tickets, they’ve got a blockbuster on their hands.

“I just want you to be ready,” Lea Thompson says, followed by an anvilicious title card reading, “Are You Ready?” (I’m sure I’m not the only  evangelical my age who saw that and had an involuntary DeGarmo & Key flashback.) That’s not just a dog-whistle, it’s a direct quote from the Rapture-enthusiast pledge of allegiance. As such, it’s the one gesture the trailer makes to reach beyond the book’s fan-base to reach a new audience — not by appealing to that audience directly, but by encouraging the Real True Christian fans of this book to invite their unsaved friends to go see the movie with them.

“Bible prophecy” evangelism is an odd thing. It’s like a variation on old-fashioned Heaven-or-Hell preaching, but with slightly lower stakes. The goal is the same — get folks to say the magic words so that they’ll get the reward instead of the punishment, but instead of the reward of eternal bliss in Heaven, it offers the reward of escape via Rapture, and instead of the punishment of eternal conscious torment in Hell it threatens the punishment of enduring the plagues of Egypt for seven years in the “Great Tribulation.” This whole threat/bribe approach to evangelism isn’t terribly compelling even in its more extreme, eternal form, but it seems to me that replacing Heaven-or-Hell with Rapture-or-Tribulation makes it even less persuasive.

These “Bible-prophecy” evangelists also always seem to misunderstand the question the “unsaved” are asking in the same way that old-school hellfire-and-brimstone preachers seem to do. “Why should I believe in this Hell of yours?” people ask, and the preacher responds by offering a more vivid and detailed description of Hell. That may help to clarify the nature of the thing they’re being asked to believe in, but it doesn’t address their question about why they should believe it’s true.

Whether the threat is of Hell or of apocalyptic suffering in the Great Tribulation, the non-conversation goes the same way:

“You’ve provided no reason why I should believe in this Very Bad Thing you’re describing.”

“Let me describe again how Very Bad it is.”

That’s a non-answer, even if the more-detailed description comes with the special effects of a big-budget Hollywood movie starring an Academy Award winner.

It also doesn’t help that the trailer here shows very little evidence that this is a big-budget Hollywood movie — it has a very made-for-TV feel. Director Vic Armstrong is a respected longtime stunt coordinator, but there’s little here to suggest that the movie will even include any fun stunts or action sequences that we haven’t seen dozens of times before.

I’m still a bit encouraged that the trailer confirms my suspicion that Armstrong’s movie will focus mainly on the Rapture itself and its immediate aftermath. It seems that all the rest of the stuff from the book Left Behind — Buck’s pointless adventure in England, his groveling for protection from the Antichrist, all of the international Jewish banker Bircher stuff Tim LaHaye threw in — will be, um, left behind in this adaptation. Maybe they’re saving Nicolae Carpathia for the sequel.

I can’t figure out what that one scene is, though, with what looks like a person standing atop the tower of a suspension bridge. Is that meant to be a glimpse/vision of the Antichrist? That got me thinking how the folks at Marvel would handle this story. We wouldn’t see the Antichrist until the first post-credits cut-scene (and wouldn’t one of the Marvel villains — Tom Hiddleston or James Spader, maybe — make a terrific movie Antichrist?). And then the second post-credits cut-scene would have Samuel Jackson or Clark Gregg approaching Buck and Rayford, recruiting them for the Tribulation Force.

One of the odd things about this new movie is that all the publicity has focused on Nic Cage’s starring role, with almost all the reports mentioning that Kirk Cameron played the lead in the earlier version. Well, yes, sort of. But they don’t quite get that Cage won’t be playing the same role as Cam-Cam played. Cameron’s presence made Buck Williams the “star” of the first adaptation, and it seems that Cage’s presence makes Rayford Steele  the nominal star of this new version of the story (Buck seems like a mere sidekick in this trailer).  Their interchangeability underscores how little either one of these “heroes” matters. They’re present when the story unfolds, but their actions don’t ever drive the story.

This trailer highlights the bystander-ish irrelevance of both “heroes.” It’s a global disaster story, and both Buck and Rayford are stuck on an airplane. The trailer shows us Buck desperately recording what he thinks is breaking news, but it’s already old news to everyone on the planet. Nicolas Cage seems to be starring in a remake of Airport 1975, but the rest of the world is living through Independence Day. If the movie itself spends as much time back on the ground in the thick of the larger story as this trailer does, then you could argue that neither one of our “heroes” is actually the lead protagonist here and the movie may turn out to belong to Cassi Thomson’s Chloe.

There’s an odd clip in the trailer that shows someone walking across a railroad bridge. I think it was Chloe, but that scene and that shot made me think — or wish — for a moment that it was Patty, as in Patty Dunning, the hero of Donald W. Thompson’s 1972 epic granddaddy of all Rapture movies, A Thief in the Night. If that really is a tribute to Thompson’s movie, and not just a coincidence, then there may be some hope for this thing yet.

I wasn’t joking about the comparison to Airport 1975. Here’s the trailer for that old-time disaster epic. I’d say they don’t make ’em like that anymore, but it seems like Armstrong and his producers are trying to:

And now I’m kind of hoping for a Soylent Green remake with Nic Cage in the Heston role.

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